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     The rule for Coffee Bean was this: If there were more than three people in line at the time of arrival, it was off to work to enjoy the drippings of the ancient, ancient Mr. Coffee. Mr. Coffee was yellowed with age, angry at an office that refused to let Mr. Coffee retire at an appropriate, long past age. His insides were cancerous. His caffeinated menses was bitter bile.

     Nevertheless, Carolyn stuck to her Coffee Bean rule.  It was a good rule. Its amendments were many, but its core logic (time of waking plus time to find parking, minus time it takes to produce more than three steamed-milk-intensive drinks divided by unwillingness to give up the fifteen vital minutes of pre-8 a.m. sleep) had served her well. She was rarely late to even the earliest class she taught.  And that, Carolyn often concluded on mornings when the line was short and her reward was a grande au lait (cinnamon-topped on cold mornings), was why rules only worked when you stuck to them. Broken rules were like stubbornly limp penises.

     Weekends were different. The Coffee Bean rule expanded generously to arrive at a sum of six allowable customers in line when there was no rush for work. Six people was enough time to read a section of the Times while standing. Six people was long enough to slough off morning phlegm of the larynx to order in a clear, steady voice. But six people didn't change some of the amendments: A couple on a single ticket still counted as two in line. A broken espresso machine or short staffing necessitated an emergency check of the vastly inferior, yet conveniently located Starbucks two blocks down. In the rare event of a morning companion, the rules could bend substantially, in direct proportion to the attractiveness of said company and the enjoyment of time being had with morning companion.

     Wednesday morning. A two-customer start to her day.

     Carolyn had the front of the Times bent to a fourth, skimming the headlines of the upper left quadrant. The president was in another country, bungling an arms treaty or an energy policy or something just out of periphery range of Carolyn's interest. It was close to an interesting story, but ultimately the picked-on runt of the flag football team.  She moved to the next item.  Possible new planet discovered.  She smiled.  She skimmed the cutline accompanying a blurry, black and white NASA image that looked like the rounded ultrasound of a sumo wrestler's wife. Considered the universe and her place in it.  Four seconds passed.  Next story.  Just as she was unfolding and refolding to navigate the lower left fourth of the front page, Carolyn moved up a place in line.  And from behind, she heard the first of the conversation.

     "....until six.  I can't.  I can't leave.  They will fire me."  A long pause.  Carolyn could hear a second tinny voice responding, the squeaky buzz-squawk that surely was emanating from a cell phone.  Then the girl, young she sounded by voice, responded with wounded, weak defiance. "I do care. That's not fair. I'm sorry, I just can't.  I got a lecture last time and that was only two weeks ago!  I know it's important to you. Can't Trent give you a ride?  Doesn't he have to be there too?"

     In another time, Carolyn would have been pondering the fall of the human race by now.  But that was before she'd bought her own cell phone and become one of them. It had happened at about the time banks stopped putting "19" for you in the corner on checks where you filled in the year. There was a phone buying justification she'd gone through at the time of her purchase that could have been a cousin of the Coffee Bean rule. The time she saved making calls on the run had added at least twenty minutes of sleep to her mornings. This, Carolyn could reason for hours, was a Good Thing. Since her own cell conversion, Carolyn felt no shame in having, or even listening in to, increasingly public phone calls. She surmised that purses, at the time of their introduction, had been considered similarly crass and rude tools of questionable necessity.

     The girl behind Carolyn, as she could now hear, was on the losing end of a midmorning competition of persuasion with someone Carolyn guessed was at least a semi-pro at manipulation.  The girl's voice grew increasingly defeated, becoming quieter and more lost as the half of the conversation Carolyn could hear continued.

     "Baby, I know. That's why I offered to take you last night. But this job.  My boss..." A long pause. "...I know you drove me to work when I didn't have a car.  I know. I remember.  I..." The weak, manipulative squawkings forging guilt from the mobile phone airwaves. "... That's not true. I want you to be successful.  If I could leave work I would. You know that.  Chris, no -- "

     Carolyn wasn't sure what was on the lower right fourth of the Times today.  She'd been staring at the headline for at least two minutes, while the disparate words she stared at scattered through the brain looking for a connection, dissed by preoccupied neurons.  She'd been listening to the conversation, marveling at how much this girl sounded like the students, dozens, hundreds, who had come to her with their most personal crises for so many years.  She hadn't snuck a look yet.  Maybe this was one of her students.  Instead of making the inevitable pivot to steal an identifying glance, Carolyn unfolded the section and refolded in reverse to the back page, keeping up the charade so she could continue listening. A large, half-tone department store bra ad greeted her. A dozen pair, nipple-less breasts in glossily padded, tastefully lace-edged holders. Carolyn scrambled, flustering sheets to get the front page back to the fore.


Continued next week...


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